Pam of Travellin’ Penguin blog read ML Skinner’s short story “The hand” for a challenge she was doing, and, when I expressed interest in it, very kindly sent me a copy. “The hand” is a mysterious little story – and by little, I mean, little in that it takes up less than 7 pages of the anthology, Australian short stories, that she found it in.
Now, the story is a bit tricky, and I think is best understood within the context of Skinner’s biography. She was born in Perth in 1876, but the family moved to England and Ireland in 1878. Mollie was a keen student and reader but had to abandon formal education in 1887 because of an ulcerated cornea, which resulted in her spending much of the next five years in a darkened room with bandaged eyes. After cauterisation partially restored her sight, she started to write poems and stories. Presumably this was around 1892 (ie 5 years after 1887?) when she was about 16 years old. Later she trained as a nurse, which gave her her main living. And then, the ADB biography (linked to above) says something interesting in terms of our reading of this story: “she recognized within herself an intuitive power, or sixth sense.” A little later in the biography, we are also told that “Mollie believed that God’s hand on her shoulder guided her life. She dabbled in the occult”. She returned to Australia in 1900, though returned to England later to study. She also travelled to India, and served there and Burma during World War 1.
So to the story, which was first published in 1924. It is set in a “mining hospital back there in the west.” As there was “little doing” and the light too dim to read by, the Matron is encouraged to tell a story which she is “good at” doing. They – presumably the off-duty staff – ask her about her life in “those posts way back in the interior”. Was she ever frightened, they ask?
‘Well–the loneliness. And bad white men, and bad blacks. Of patients in delirium. Or some awful maternity case you couldn’t handle.’
‘I didn’t think about it. I did what I could. I was frightened once, though: and that, really, by a nurse screaming. A nurse shouldn’t scream.’
Interesting, the “bad white men, and bad blacks”, but I’ll just take that as another of those ways in which contemporary stories provide us insight into the times, and move on with the story. She then tells the story of the scream. She describes the small outback post, the sense of community they had, and the little L-shaped hospital which was open to the bush on one side, and the road and railroad on the other. There were two other nurses besides herself, one being Nurse Hammer “a regular town girl, very attractive, but unstable, untried.” On the night of the scream, our Matron story-teller was doing accounts while the two nurses were chatting with the patients. Our Matron’s mind kept wandering she says. She’s
very practical, really, and then liable to feel things in the air, things that other people don’t seem aware of. My father called it “unwarranted interference”; and told me to taboo it. But it gets hold of me sometimes: and this evening I was uneasy, aware of “something”. There seemed to be a sound.
But, she can’t identify anything, so continues to try to work. She hears Nurse Hammer go to bed, and then – the scream. The rest of the story concerns locating the scream – it was Nurse Hammer – and working out the cause of it – a hand has grabbed Hammer’s leg.
In the end, there’s a practical explanation for “the hand” but along the way there’s a sense of an awakening or at least, a growing up, for Nurse Hammer. Initially, the Matron is
conscious, not only of Hammer’s terrible fear, but of a deeper source, dark and secret within herself. I remembered how lovely she was. How men in the wards watched with furtive eyes as she walked past. I remembered the way she walked–how she avoided those eyes. I knew then that the girl had herself been tempted, that she was powerless, now, in this dark room, because in her own life she was passing through crisis.
The Matron finds herself praying that “whatever we found in this room would not be evil.”
Skinner builds up the suspense well, the darkness, the lantern going out, until eventually the cause of the scream is determined. Before it is fully explained though, Nurse Hammer has a little more to endure, but, says Matron,
I glanced at Hammer. The Nightingale light was flooding her face …
And the Matron goes on to use words that imply a biblical aspect to Hammer’s enlightenment – but if I say more, I’ll give away the story which I’m not sure I want to do (though unfortunately the story does not seem to be available online).
Interestingly, Skinner attracted the attention of DH Lawrence … but I think I might make this the subject of tomorrow’s Monday Musings! Meanwhile, I think the story is to be understood in the sense of a divine intervention intended to test and try Nurse Hammer, from which she emerges, in a sense, reborn and now a real nurse, like Florence Nightingale. (But, I could be wrong.)